Thursday, March 15, 2012

Is ASCLD/LAB crime-lab accreditation inadequate?

A reader forwarded me this remarkable 31-page memo (pdf) submitted last year to the New York Forensic Science Commission severely criticizing ASCLD/LAB, which is the primary accreditation body for American crime labs, including in Texas. The memo's' author was Marvin E. Schechter, who several months later was named chair of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar. I've always thought ASCLD/LAB's approach seemed a bit squishy and lab-friendly, but Scheichter's memo questions whether lameness too often extends to complicity, and even whether it's appropriate to rely on the private accreditation body at all:
The repeated instances of nationwide lab failures at facilities under ASCLD/LAB accreditation combined with the severity, scope and magnitude of the North Carolina SBI Laboratory scandal, the pending legislative reforms in North Carolina and the San Francisco DNA mix-up/cover-up warrant that the CFS examine precisely what role ASCLD/LAB plays in forensic review, its methodology, the design of its model and the very integrity of the organization itself, including but not limited to potential, if not actual conflicts of interest. Further there must be a serious discussion of whether the CFS can continue to rely on ASCLD/LAB as an accrediting agency.
I certainly hadn't realized until reading this piece that ASCLD/LAB is no longer  the accreditation body for the United States Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory (USACIL), which dropped ASCLD/LAB after it was reaccredited despite one of its examiners having "engaged in repeated misconduct known to supervisors." ASCLD/LAB only required an internal audit in response and did not publicly acknowledge the problem until it was outed in a newspaper series years later.

Equally damning, as we debate prosecutorial misconduct and Brady issues here in Texas, is the accreditation body's lax attitude toward notification of defendants or sometimes even prosecutors when crime lab errors are discovered:
Transparency does not include notification to District Attorneys (San Francisco, Nassau County) when laboratories engage in misconduct. It does not mean notification to defense attorneys in cases where the representation of their clients is affected. It would appear to be ASCLD/LAB’s position that notifying anyone other than an affected laboratory is not how transparency, or for that matter accreditation, should be viewed.
Prosecutors can't hand over Brady material they never see, just as defendants can't challenge flawed forensic evidence if its imperfections are concealed.

I've heard bits and pieces of these critiques in isolation over the years, but it's stunning to see them all together marshaled into a coherent argument for the first time (for me, anyway). Given the weight afforded to private accreditation in Texas (and other states which have legislated crime lab reforms in the 21st century), anyone with more than a passing interest in crime labs should read the whole thing (pdf). The implications if ASCLD/LAB accreditation really is fundamentally inadequate are significant indeed.


Ryan said...

Kudos to the NY CFS for looking into other accreditation options. This is why accreditation alone is insufficient oversight, especially when done by an organization like ASCLD/LAB. Just another reminder that the fact evidence comes from an accredited lab does not mean it is reliable evidence.

If the federal Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act ever moves forward, it will be interesting to see what the statute and regulations have to say about choosing an accreditation agency.

Anonymous said...

Marvin Schechter was on the committee that issued the signal NRC report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward in 2009. He cut his defense lawyer teeth working for Legal Aid in NYC, has led the NYS Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and has a deep understanding of forensic science.

This memo is EXACTLY the sort of incisive analysis that Marvin is known for. Forensic science, not to mention lab accreditation, will be much, much better if we would all work on answering the questions he raises here.

Anonymous said...

Maybe NASA could take over this responsibility. They don't have very much to do these days thanks to Obama!

Anonymous said...

"...Laboratories currently accredited under the Legacy program are 'grandfathered'...” -- meaning that crime labs that neglected to scientifically validate their protocols or have analysts not qualified to perform testing (lacking scientific college degrees), got a free pass from ASCLD/LAB.

To put it another way, ASCLD/LAB and its "grandfathering" allows crime labs to disregard Federal Rules of Evidence - Rule 702. Testimony by Expert Witnesses.
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Unvalidated protocols, undocumented error rates, and uneducated analysts are acceptable because ASCLD/LAB (the agency getting paid) said it was A-OK.

Would you accept a plea bargain in the face of a lab report from an ASCLD/LAB accredited crime lab if you knew this?